When will the unemployed choose politics

Salon does a movie

Quote of the day

Joseph Grosso wonders about a viciously cold America:

What is it about the even barely noticed presence of poverty that sends so much of American politics and culture into attack mode? Harsh treatment of the poor of course has a long history in the work houses, debtors’ prisons, and chimney-sweepers, as any reader of Blake, Dickens, Hugo, and Zola can recognize. Yet in the present-day one would be hard-pressed to find a society more intolerant than the present United States. By now the facts have been so rehashed as to become strangely easier to ignore: the highest rate of poverty in the Western world, highest child poverty, highest permanent poverty, highest income inequality, highest rate of incarceration, highest health-care costs, it can go on and on. On top of it all one will probably the only society where one will find more, or at least as many, protests against improving any of this as for; where else in the world are there pro-austerity marches?

America — a place where everyone must have a job but also a place which shows neither a living wage nor a full employment platform for either legacy party.

A God fearing land?

Believing in a promise land

I recently managed to gain full-time employment, thereby leaving behind a life given over mostly to study and political writing, but also a life punctuated by bouts of paid labor and a durable fear of becoming destitute. Despite my fear, which was realistic, I preferred the mode of living I have just left behind. It’s what I would do if I were wholly free to choose. But I’m not that free or, when better put, I’m not free in that abstract and unlimited way.

I should feel grateful for my new job. After all, the real unemployment rate easily exceeds 20%. I do need the money. But I’m ungrateful. Why, I ask myself, should I feel grateful for having an opportunity to submit to a kind of social necessity? How might I appreciate my lack of autonomy while on the job? My subordination to others? My fatigue? My numb leg and aching back? My elemental need for money? I do feel grateful for being alive but I won’t live just to perform labor for pay. I sell my labor only because others depend upon me, upon my ability to earn a wage and my actually earning a wage. Heteronomy, as we know, passes into autonomy whenever one chooses for sound reasons to carry burdens which compromise one’s freedoms.

It’s a privilege to have the time and means to read and write. That is, only a few have the opportunity to devote their lives to this kind of work. It’s rewarding to those individuals who care about such things. The typical path to making good use of this opportunity requires years of study and a mastery of the relevant puberty rituals. One might, if one is lucky, find a job teaching at a university, as a holder of a tenured position with the time needed to do original research. Some, on the other hand, can live from their writing. But this is difficult. It too requires one to submit to social necessity. And making a living as a writer is especially improbable if one is a left critic. Even self-avowed liberals work at the margin. Leftwingers are mostly outcastes.

I am writing this short essay in order to remind whoever reads it that it takes considerable time and effort to develop a defensible position on matters of public importance. Most lack that time. They also are unaware that they need to make the effort to learn about the world. They have friends and family, jobs and homes. These are, for most, decisive constraints. They occupy time and often occlude the larger issues which make life what it is. It is easy to denigrate the many for their comparative lack of political sophistication, for voting Republican (or Democrat), for falling prey to authoritarian and fascist rhetoric, for believing nonsense economics, for devoting their lives to sectarian religions, etc. But, many of these acts and beliefs are just “havens in a heartless world,” to paraphrase and expand Marx’s critique of religion and everyday life. They give meaning to the various ways in which people suffer, meanings that are also ephemeral and even deadly in their effects. It is good to remember how difficult it is to live a fully human life.

But I’ll not think about these matters tomorrow, for I’ll be at work, earning a non-living wage, performing tasks which just about anyone can do, directly participating in a system which I would change if I could.

First posted at Fire Dog Lake

Quote of the day

Paul Krugman, once again:

Financial markets are cheering the deal that emerged from Brussels early Thursday morning. Indeed, relative to what could have happened — an acrimonious failure to agree on anything — the fact that European leaders agreed on something, however vague the details and however inadequate it may prove, is a positive development.

But it’s worth stepping back to look at the larger picture, namely the abject failure of an economic doctrine — a doctrine that has inflicted huge damage both in Europe and in the United States.

The doctrine in question amounts to the assertion that, in the aftermath of a financial crisis, banks must be bailed out but the general public must pay the price. So a crisis brought on by deregulation becomes a reason to move even further to the right; a time of mass unemployment, instead of spurring public efforts to create jobs, becomes an era of austerity, in which government spending and social programs are slashed.

This doctrine was sold both with claims that there was no alternative — that both bailouts and spending cuts were necessary to satisfy financial markets — and with claims that fiscal austerity would actually create jobs. The idea was that spending cuts would make consumers and businesses more confident. And this confidence would supposedly stimulate private spending, more than offsetting the depressing effects of government cutbacks.

Quote of the day

While discussing the Occupy Wall Street protest, Glenn Greenwald makes the observation that:

The very idea that one can effectively battle Wall Street’s corruption and control by working for the Democratic Party is absurd on its face: Wall Street’s favorite candidate in 2008 was Barack Obama, whose administration — led by a Wall Street White House Chief of Staff and Wall-Street-subservient Treasury Secretary and filled to the brim with Goldman Sachs officials — is now working hard to protect bankers from meaningful accountability (and though he’s behind Wall Street’s own Mitt Romney in the Wall Street cash sweepstakes this year, Obama is still doing well); one of Wall Street’s most faithful servants is Chuck Schumer, the money man of the Democratic Party; and the second-ranking Senate Democrat acknowledged — when Democrats controlled the Congress — that the owners of Congress are bankers. There are individuals who impressively rail against the crony capitalism and corporatism that sustains Wall Street’s power, but they’re no match for the party apparatus that remains fully owned and controlled by it.

Greenwald, naturally, wanted to defend the protesters against the criticisms originating from the establishment media and, sadly, from the ‘progressive’ media. Channeling popular discontent into the Democratic Party and its common candidates is both self-defeating and demoralizing for those who hold dear radical goals and outcomes. If any President has made this problem clear that President would be Barack Obama. He got from the electorate a mandate for reform in 2008, but has since has squandered his political gift on reactionary economic policies and illegal war-making. To my mind, the path forward cannot waste itself on duopoly politicking. Common Americans must create the politics needed to address the problems they now confront, for, if not them, then who will make such a politics?

The NYPD vs. the Occupy Wall Street protesters

Quote of the day

Paul Craig Roberts, long a conservative, wrote:

Economic policy in the United States and Europe has failed, and people are suffering.

Economic policy failed for three reasons: (1) policymakers focused on enabling offshoring corporations to move middle class jobs, and the consumer demand, tax base, GDP, and careers associated with the jobs, to foreign countries, such as China and India, where labor is inexpensive; (2) policymakers permitted financial deregulation that unleashed fraud and debt leverage on a scale previously unimaginable; (3) policymakers responded to the resulting financial crisis by imposing austerity on the population and running the printing press in order to bail out banks and prevent any losses to the banks regardless of the cost to national economies and innocent parties.

Later on, Roberts observed: “This is what economic policy in the West has become — a tool of the wealthy used to enrich themselves by spreading poverty among the rest of the population.” Roberts refers here to what James Galbraith called the Predator State. Roberts eventually concluded his article with:

For four years interest rates, when properly measured, have been negative. Americans are getting by, maintaining living standards, by consuming their capital. Even those with a cushion are eating their seed corn. The path that the US economy is on means that the number of Americans without resources to sustain them will be rising. Considering the extraordinary political incompetence of the Democratic Party, the right wing of the Republican Party, which is committed to eliminating income support programs, could find itself in power. If the right-wing Republicans implement their program, the US will be beset with political and social instability. As Gerald Celente says, “when people have have nothing left to lose, they lose it.”

One point I wish to make: I do not believe the Democratic Party is as incompetent as Roberts suggests; I do believe instead that the Democratic Party is as morally, culturally and politically bankrupt as the Republican Party, including that party’s most reactionary component. Competence is not the problem for the Democrats. The problem broadly considered can be found in the political commitments of the two parties and the structural constraints which make creating an opposition party and opposition movements so difficult. To my mind, this broadly construed problem reflects the essence of the duopoly party system: There exists no viable alternative to the status quo — it’s the duopoly parties and non plus ultra.

Stating the obvious

Robert Reich talks to the establishment:

The 5 percent of Americans with the highest incomes now account for 37 percent of all consumer purchases, according to the latest research from Moody’s Analytics. That should come as no surprise. Our society has become more and more unequal.

When so much income goes to the top, the middle class doesn’t have enough purchasing power to keep the economy going without sinking ever more deeply into debt — which, as we’ve seen, ends badly. An economy so dependent on the spending of a few is also prone to great booms and busts. The rich splurge and speculate when their savings are doing well. But when the values of their assets tumble, they pull back. That can lead to wild gyrations. Sound familiar?

The economy won’t really bounce back until America’s surge toward inequality is reversed. Even if by some miracle President Obama gets support for a second big stimulus while Ben S. Bernanke’s Fed keeps interest rates near zero, neither will do the trick without a middle class capable of spending. Pump-priming works only when a well contains enough water.

I agree with Reich. Economic and political conditions in the United States have squeezed the middle class. Yet it is not just the middle class that lacks the economic resources needed to pull the economy out of its stagnant state. The working class also lacks these resources while the size of the underclass — composed of the permanently un- and under-employed — grows in step with the real rate of unemployment. Gross inequality, like high-unemployment and low-wages, marks the steady-state of the current economic regime. This situation ought to be a political problem. But is it? No, it is not. It clearly is not because we have seen the Washington elite respond to this steady-state by reaffirming neoliberal verities. Their response has amounted to affirming the constraints which now limit aggregate demand. The elite have chosen economic stagnation and all that that choice entails.

One might judge the elite response incompetent if, firstly, one believed a competent response would have included a large stimulus and an effort to take wealth from the rich and give that wealth to the poor and if, secondly, one believed the elite in general would affirm an effective program to increase aggregate demand. Why should we accept the second condition as true? After all, if the powerful and influential wanted to reignite the economy, that is, if a consensus among the elite had formed which affirmed a pro-growth and pro-equalization project, they would have, by definition, the means to implement this program. The lack of effort reveals something akin to a collective intent. It shows the class preference of the economic and political elite to be to remain stuck in this stagnant steady-state. They prefer this economic regime because it protects their wealth and power.

Reich, to my mind, wasted his time. The “lesser people” (Alan Simpson) will never reasonably talk the ‘greater people’ into giving up shares of the wealth and their power.